Cotinus coggyria grows native in areas of central and southern Europe, and in China and the Himalayas. It gets its common name from the “puff of smoke” effect of the blooms on the branch ends. The leaves are initially green, but turn to brilliant shades of orange, yellow and red in the fall.
The best known cultivar of C. coggyria is ‘Royal Purple,’ with deep purple foliage all spring and summer and rich fall colour of scarlet and orange. This shrub was one of the first popular purple foliage shrubs, in the trade long before the new wave of Weigela, Ninebark and Elderberry (Sambucus) arrived.
Cotinus obovatus, the American Smoketree, is rarely seen in the nursery trade. It grows larger than C. coggyria, up to 30 feet tall. Its fall colour is glorious, and the pinkish flower panicles can be six to ten inches long.
One of my favourite plants in my garden is a hybrid of Cotinus obovatus and C. coggyria ‘Velvet Cloak.’ Known as ‘Grace’ this plant never ceases to amaze me by virtue of its quick growth, drought tolerance (it’s growing in soil that can be best described as gravel), heavy flower production and outstanding fall colour. The leaves in spring and summer are a gorgeous burgundy wine-red.
Another relatively new introduction is C. coggyria ‘Young Lady.’ If you want a lot of smoke, this is the plant for you. It produces blooms on nearly every branch, and the effect is like a poodle from June to August. Fall colour is an excellent orange-red.
There are two strategies for pruning the Smoke Bush. They are normally a vigorous grower, and pruning established plants to the ground each spring will result in six feet or more of growth during the growing season. This will occur, however, at the expense of flowers.
If you like the smoke effect leave the plant alone and the older wood will bloom heavily. After several years, though, the plant will be gangly and unattractive. A compromise would be to remove a few mature shoots each spring, allowing for new vigorous foliage growth and flowers on the remaining older wood.

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